About the Author

Joel R. Johnson

In 1974, Carol Ann Mayes-Johnson (b. 1941) and Richard Barry Bobo-Johnson (B. 1946) were living in Concord, New Hampshire when I was born in the middle of an intense law-school exam. Richard, a Vietnam veteran and law student on the G.I. bill at Franklin Pierce University, and my mother Carol, a graduate of Michigan State University in education landed in New Hampshire for grad school. My siblings and I grew up in the Northeastern woods, fields and farms with barely any idea we were Black. I even attended a one-room schoolhouse for a while. Then my parents decided to move to Cleveland where my Mother grew up. Her mother was sick and it was time to go “home.” My parents dropped us in the middle of inner-city Cleveland in the family home built by hand by my great-grandfather, Van Mays, himself a product of the Great Migration. Unfortunately, Cleveland in the 1980s was hard-hit by poverty and it was a rude awakening for the Johnson family. But we were so independent we eventually explored every part of that city. With nothing but a bus token we found the MetroParks system, and the Cleveland’s monumental public libraries and museums, even Severance Hall. The city became our playground. My siblings and I also participated in the National Junior Tennis League. There’s nothing like hot summer nights under the lights in the hood listening to the smack of tennis balls and Run DMC pumping out of ghetto blasters court side.

Under the eye of watchful and loving parents, both educators, we faced the struggles of housing instability and food insecurity. But we made the best of Ohio. Its lakes, rivers, and forests were often places of refuge. Finally, my parents, fed up with the lack of opportunity, pulled up and headed East to my father’s home place of Chester, Pennsylvania to start over. We ultimately landed on the shores of Ocean City, New Jersey with newfound financial stability and loving family close by. In “OC “I learned to love the ocean, beaches and marshes, while I studied theater, journalism, history and poetry. Participation in humanities leadership programs set me on a path to Swarthmore College and eventually, graduate school at Northwestern University.

The Johnson family in Ocean City, NJ, 1991. L-R, Carol Ann Johnson nee Mays, Christopher, Richard Barry Johnson, Joel, Alicia, Julius, Blake.

My older brothers are Blake and Orin, my younger siblings, also born in New Hampshire, are Julius, Christopher, and Alicia. All survived and thrived out of a challenging childhood – all of my siblings has a graduate degree, several from Ivy league schools.

I’m a storyteller. I have my Master’s in Performance Studies from the Communications school at Northwestern University, and I studied at the University of London. I’ve lived and worked in Philadelphia, Chicago, London, New York City, and now Washington, DC. After working decades in advertising agencies, I shifted to cause marketing, and finally found my calling in conservation. After leading the marketing and communications efforts at Trout Unlimited and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, I became President and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation in July 2023.


Since the early 2000s I’ve researched most of my family lines back several generations, some to before the founding of the United States. My genetic research shows I’m primarily descended from West and Central African peoples (Bantu) from Cameroon, Congo, Benin/Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and about 1/4th from European peoples stretching from Sweden to Scotland, from France to Wales. I descend from the enslaved and enslavers.

I have used a variety of online research tools including the big four – Ancestry, FamilySearch, GedMatch, and MyHeritage – but also many online databases of historical societies, state and national archives, university and college libraries and resources, newspaper archives, county records, written and oral histories, and special collections. Often, I’ve engaged professional genealogists and historians to travel to records I can not reach. I also use contemporary historical nonfiction, history books, county histories, and maps to conduct research. I can’t stress enough how valuable it has been to also uses blogs, podcasts, and video from professional genealogists to gain new research tips and methodologies, insight into collections, and generally, to understand the challenges and pitfalls of family research as well.

DNA research has opened new avenues of research and enabled me to connect with new family members, to be found my other family historians. In one recent instance, it helped reunite members of my family separated by adoption. I’ve begun to visit LDS Family Research Centers to get access to documents not posted online. I travel to archives, libraries, and cemeteries regularly. Finally, I would describe myself as “intermediate” genealogist.

My project with the family genealogy began really as a way to develop more pride in who I am. I was responding as a witness to other African Americans discovering their own family trees inspired by books like ROOTS and TV shows like African American Lives and Who Do You Think You Are? and the remarkable stories. The search for pride during genealogy though has become a kind of effect and less a cause some 15 years later. As I got deeper into the research two things really struck me – one – that I wasn’t the only one with a stake in our genealogy and indeed, another family historian had already started this project – and two – that the search for one’s ancestry is, in fact, more than a search for a personal understanding about oneself. It inevitably leads to a broader understanding of history and the world, in particular, American history and our place in it. I think that understanding becomes knowledge, and knowledge is power.

I own a great debt to my cousin Patricia Marion Mays-Thompson of Cleveland, Ohio has for over nearly forty years worked to document the Mays family from their recorded origins in Greenville, South Carolina. She documented the earliest Mays family through visits to SC, the national archives, oral history, and study of available documents. Her family history, I Came By Way of Somebody, is a 300-page genealogy of my maternal line and the first source I turned too. She has produced and updated the Mays-Sherman family tree for many years with the help of her children. Without her work, I would not have the foundation of my own genealogy.

Pretty early on it became obvious that I was entering a new field, with new terms and definitions, methodologies and practices to learn. I did not use a single book, article or author or method of conducting genealogy to guide me. I eagerly use several and am always looking for new guides and reference material. I took strong advantage of the tools of my time – primarily internet research, the digitization of archives and databases, along with historical societies, and of course the two big online family research tools, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch. I particularly found helpful the books, online video series, podcasts, and video lectures by genealogists – particularly black genealogists like Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Bernice Bennet, Melvin Collier, Shannon Christmas, Nicka Sewell-Smith, Toni Carrier, Angela Walton-Raji – who shared inspiring stories, tips and methods, and the tools to do the work with the understanding that as an African American, I would have to approach some aspects of my genealogy differently.

All genealogists must become students of history and study the context of the times their ancestors lived in. African Americans, however must go from merely being history detectives to scholars of the American project to be truly successful. Slavery is embedded in this Nation’s founding, laws, and dramatically influences American life today. With this knowledge, we are able to express how America is bound up in the creation of race, white supremacy and systemic oppression, and how it impacted my ancestors through culture, economics, religion, and politics, love and even death. These studies have helped me identify the factors and influences upon my ancestors that impacted their daily lives, from how they lived, worked, and loved, to their major movements across the country –by choice or otherwise.

Contact and Disclaimer

All content on StruggleandProgress.com are my own. The content of StruggleandProgress.com do not necessarily warrant or represent the facts and opinions, positions or perspectives of individuals, groups, organizations, or companies I may be affiliated with.

Posts are frequently updated as new data becomes available. The data within contains graphic depictions of slavery and other historic acts, including violence, sexual violence, abuse, torture, and murder. Children under 18 should be seek the permission of their parents.

Citations are made in the MLA style.

For inquiries, speaking engagements, media, please contact Joel R. Johnson, joelrjohnson@gmail.com.

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